Happy the Elephant: A New York Supreme Court must determine if the Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo is a person

ALBANY, New York – She has four limbs, expressive eyes and loves to stroll through the greenery of New York City. Happy is kind of an Asian elephant. But can she also be considered as a person?

That question was addressed Wednesday in New York’s highest court in a closely watched case over whether a basic human right can be extended to an animal.

Proponents of the Nonhuman Rights Project say yes: Happy is an autonomous, cognitively complex elephant deserving of the right legally reserved for “one person.” The Bronx Zoo, where Happy lives, says no: Through an attorney, the zoo argues that Happy is neither illegally detained nor a person, but a well-cared for elephant “respected for the magnificent creature that she is.”

Happy has lived at the Bronx Zoo for 45 years. The state appeals court heard arguments about whether she should be released under habeas corpus, which is a way for people to challenge unlawful detention.

The Nonhuman Rights Project wants her moved from a “one-acre prison” at the zoo to a more spacious sanctuary.

“She has an interest in making her decisions and deciding who she wants to be with, where she goes, what she does and what she eats,” the project’s attorney, Monica Miller, told The Associated Press before the oral negotiations. “And the zoo forbids her from making any of those decisions herself.”

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The group said that in 2005, Happy became the first elephant to pass a self-esteem test, repeatedly touching a white “X” on her forehead as she looked into a large mirror.

The zoo and its supporters warn that a victory for supporters of the Nonhuman Rights Project could open the door to further legal action on behalf of animals, including pets and other species in zoos.

“If there’s going to be a complete rewrite and granting of rights to animals they never had before, shouldn’t that be done by the legislature?” Kenneth Manning, attorney for zoo operator Wildlife Conservation Society, asked the judges.

Born in the wild in Asia in the early 1970s, Happy was captured and brought to the United States as a one-year-old, where she was eventually named after one of the characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Happy arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977 with fellow elephant Grumpy, who was fatally injured in a confrontation with two other elephants in 2002.

Happy now lives in an enclosure next to the zoo’s other elephant, Patty. The zoo’s attorney argued in court filings that Happy can swim, forage and engage in other behaviors natural to elephants.

“NRP’s blatant exploitation of Happy the Elephant to advance their coordinated agenda demonstrates no concern for the individual animal and demonstrates the fact that they are willing to sacrifice Happy’s health and mental well-being to set a precedent,” he said the zoo in a prepared statement.

NRP’s lawyers say no matter how Happy is treated at the zoo, her right to “physical liberty” will be violated. They argue that if the court recognizes Happy’s right to this freedom under habeas corpus, she will be a “person” for that purpose. And then she must be released.

The judges bombarded attorneys for both sides with pointed questions during the hearing. Judge Jenny Rivera asked Miller about the impact of the NRP position on human-animal relationships.

“So does that mean I can’t keep a dog?” Rivera asked. “I mean, dogs can remember words.”

Miller said that at the moment there is more evidence that elephants are exceptionally cognitively complex with advanced analytical abilities.

Lower courts have ruled against the NRP. And the group has failed in similar cases, including cases involving a chimp in upstate New York named Tommy.

But last October, at the urging of another animal rights group, a federal judge ruled that Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s infamous “cocaine hippos” could be recognized as individuals or “interested persons” with legal rights in the US, which could affect the hippos themselves, since they live in Colombia.

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Opponents hope the NRP’s string of court losses will continue with the high-profile New York court.

In a brief with friends of the court, the New York Farm Bureau and other farming groups said the NRP’s “newfangled theory of personality” would sweep away pigs, cows and chickens. The National Association for Biomedical Research said approving such petitions on behalf of animals could increase the cost of conducting critical research. State and national associations representing veterinarians filed a brief statement saying the NRP’s lawsuit promotes animals’ privacy rights over animal welfare.

Supporters of the NRP campaign include public figures such as Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe. In this case, many of them see an opportunity for society to take a step forward in the ethical treatment of animals.

“We believe this legal moment represents an important cultural crossroads for Happy to think more openly and honestly — and less selfishly — about what it would mean to treat the specificity of nonhuman animals with the moral seriousness they deserve,” he said a letter submitted by Catholic academic theologians read.

The court’s decision is expected in the coming months.

At least one animal rights activist suggests that a lone court decision won’t change society’s view of animal use. Rutgers Law School professor Gary Francione, who is not involved in the case, said it would require a broader cultural shift.

“I’ve been vegan for 40 years. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t approve of the use of animals at all,” Francione said. “Just for the court to start saying that nonhuman animals are persons under the law is going to raise all sorts of questions, the answers to which will not be available to many people.”

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

https://abc13.com/happy-elephant-bronx-zoo-are-animals-people-animal-rights/11868361/ Happy the Elephant: A New York Supreme Court must determine if the Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo is a person

Dais Johnston

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